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Tinker collaborates with local high school to 3D print assistive devices

Evan Lollis, with the 556th Software Engineering Squadron, lifts the jig and palm pieces of a prosthetic arm from the plate of a 3-D printer. Members of the squadron collaborated with students from Mount St. Mary's High School who are working with e-Nable Foundation, which offers 3-D printing of assistive devices for low income children with malformed hands and/or wrists. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kelly White)

Evan Lollis, with the 556th Software Engineering Squadron, lifts the jig and palm pieces of a prosthetic arm from the plate of a 3-D printer. Members of the squadron collaborated with students from Mount St. Mary's High School who are working with e-Nable Foundation, which offers 3-D printing of assistive devices for low income children with malformed hands and/or wrists. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kelly White)

Jig and palm pieces of a prosthetic sit on the plate of a 3-D printer in the 556th Software Engineering Squadron. Members of the squadron collaborated with students from Mount St. Mary's High School who are working with e-Nable Foundation, which offers 3-D printing of assistive devices for low income children with malformed hands and/or wrists. These pieces took 7 hours and 49 minutes to print. The squadron printed two devices, one at 100% scale and the other at 125% scale. Both devices are intended for a 9-year-old girl in Kenya, one to use now and one to use after she's outgrown the first one. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kelly White)

Jig and palm pieces of a prosthetic sit on the plate of a 3-D printer in the 556th Software Engineering Squadron. Members of the squadron collaborated with students from Mount St. Mary's High School who are working with e-Nable Foundation, which offers 3-D printing of assistive devices for low income children with malformed hands and/or wrists. These pieces took 7 hours and 49 minutes to print. The squadron printed two devices, one at 100% scale and the other at 125% scale. Both devices are intended for a 9-year-old girl in Kenya, one to use now and one to use after she's outgrown the first one. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kelly White)

Debra Hogue with the 556th Software Maintenance Squadron was looking for different opportunities for her interns when she learned about a project the robotics team at Mount St. Mary Catholic High School in Oklahoma City is involved in.

Hogue’s friend, Magi Whitaker, teaches in the science department at the school and also coaches the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics team. The robotics team, also known as Team Rocket, travels to compete in various competitions, and one competition in particular inspired them to do something no other robotics team in the state had done at the time.

“This is our eleventh season to participate in FIRST Robotics and we went to a competition where they showed us a video of a young man who had, starting with Legos, created a prosthetic arm for himself and was trying to find a way to make it less expensive,” Whitaker said. “He successfully made this arm and released all of his information free to the public and I thought ‘surely, my team could do something like that.’”

So they did.

Whitaker began researching potential organizations to get involved with when she came across the e-Nable Foundation, a volunteer-based organization that provides 3D printed assistive limb devices to under-privileged children completely free to the family.

The e-Nable Foundation website contains open-source files for assistive arm device pieces that can be improved upon by anyone around the world. Anyone with a 3D printer can access these files, free of charge, and then print the pieces and assemble the devices. The international non-profit has provided about 6,000 hands and arms to people around the world.

Whitaker contacted the organization who told her that if they had a 3D printer and filament, they could download and access the files for the pieces of the devices to 3D print and then assemble. 

“There’s no electronics or anything else, the devices are made from elastic chords and fishing line to make it work,” Whitaker said. “Once you get it printed and put together you send it to e-Nable, and if it passes and is constructed properly, you become a part of the system and they let you know when you can print one for somebody.”

So far, the team has been able to provide a hand to one little girl, and last year Mount St. Mary partnered with the Don Bosco School for Special Needs in Likuyani, Kenya to provide these assistive devices to children in the school.

“A few of us teachers went over last year and discovered that there were a couple of kids that had some differences. So I talked to them about the possibilities about printing and providing assistive devices for these little kids and they thought it would be awesome,” Whitaker said.

With only one of the students still attending the school in Kenya, the robotics team learned they’d be printing an arm device for an 8-year-old girl named Esther.

“Her arm actually ends before the wrist so the arm that we’re printing is called an ‘unlimbited arm’ and this particular arm is a hand that extends into the upper arm so that the movement the child makes is from the elbow and causes the fingers to come in and provide a grip, so she can hold a cup or crayon or toy and put her clothes on,” Whitaker said.

That’s what led Whitaker and the robotics team to collaborating with Team Tinker.

“I thought it would be cool if we could 3D print the pieces there (at Tinker) because my 3D printers are so small I have to cut the piece in half and glue it back together, so that’s what led to this particular situation,” Whitaker said. “We’re thrilled to pieces, and what they did was print one set of pieces that fit her now and one that’s 25% larger that she can grow into.”

Whitaker will be traveling back to Kenya in June to present Esther with the assembled arm piece. She and Hogue both hope the collaboration will continue.

“It gives me goosebumps. It makes life better for someone else,” Hogue said. “It would be neat if we could find a way to go towards the route of even veterans who are coming back who may be missing parts.”